Writing about work (#1 of 3)
Most of the fall quarter has now gone by, and I can take stock briefly of some of the ideas and questions that have arisen in my once-a-week seminar for students in the MA/MFA in creative writing (the class includes students working in all three genres). We are reading a number of essays, short stories, excerpts from novels, excerpts from nonfiction books, and poems, trying to get a sense of how each piece takes its stance toward work, working, the workplace, those who work—that is, how the writer creates the effect of this stance. (Which might be simply a matter of temperament, or on the other hand an artistic choice that has been deliberated deeply.) Obviously, there is no convincing argument for requiring any writer to treat this subject in particular, or any other. But in organizing this course, I wanted to see what could be learned from looking at work in a focused way and in a wide range of writings.
How do we American writers (who are so many and are different from each other in so many ways) bring into our fiction, poems, essays and other nonfiction pieces, that universal scene of human experience—working life? It is a scene of workers and supervisors, laborers and bosses, staff and superior, freelancers and those who piece together jobs insufficient in themselves… and those who manage the offices and systems and construction projects… of factories and offices, hamburger kitchens and house-painting, classrooms and hospital rooms, garages and engineering companies, laboratories and henhouses. What do we do and not do with that scene?—with the textures of experience there—across the continuum from the dangerous and horrific to the easy and safe, from the compassionate to the cutthroat, from the travails of the desperately low-earning or the dispirited to the fulfillment of the happy or the rewarding of the greedy and the tyrannical. Who are our characters? What are they like on the job, and because of their jobs? (Do they have jobs?) What are our settings? Who’s there and who’s not there? What are our images of work and of people working and of the things they work with? What does our writing say about the realities of how we are formed, deformed or reformed (in both the simple and the corrective senses) by our work?
Two meetings ago we constructed a kind of scheme of some tools for reading that we have drawn out of our reading so far, and we ended up with two categories of ideas.
To see more clearly how a piece has been structured and styled, how the effects are created, there are writerly devices with which one can read (and write); and we found that a few in particular have struck us as we have worked through our reading list. But these have no particular relevance to writing that specifically treats work and working. Such as: the use in prose of minor figures in order to show by contrast some aspects of a major one (for example, in Edward P. Jones’s short story “The Store”); or the use (for example, in Carolyn Chute’s personal essay “Faces in the Hands”) of a single event in time (in this case, her encounter with a young engineer at a party) as a structural center that opens into an array of memories, ideas, feelings. Or the distortions of narrative time available to the writer, or the use of setting, or the power relations between two main characters, or the sense of how the presentation of a main character or subject or experience can make use of a web of relationships within a group or can emphasize isolation from others.
By contrast, reading not through the lens of a device but with “work” as a conceptual tool (and thus, learning to look at one’s own writing in a related way) has alerted us to some ideas that run more deeply in the grain of the writing. For example, thinking about who owns what, and whom; who is “owned,” and how; thus who works for another, or gets others to work for her, or him. And what is the “work” that is related to owning? Is it an owning of things, of capital, of skills, of feelings? (An example of the latter: in a family business, the member who effectively “owns” the feeling of being aggrieved.) And is the “work” itself physical, emotional, managerial, publicly performed, privately performed, paid, unpaid, at home, or in a workplace? And what “work” has to be done when a person cannot get work? And beyond all that literalism, what about the connotations of “possession”? What does this character, this subject, this experience, or that, have to do with “possessing” and also with “being possessed” (in both senses)?
Another idea that has come out of our thinking together was a kind of scale of involvement in work that gives a sense not of the status of different sorts of work but rather of the emotional investment in it, whatever it may be. This scale runs from vocation (we saw this especially in Aminatta Forna’s “The Last Vet”) to passion and dedication (in whatever ways they might be different from vocation), to simply working in order to make a living and feeling that this is bearable and even a good bargain (so to speak) in life, to working a job in a state of disaffection, pain, exhaustion, or apathy (perhaps amidst physical risks and discomfort), to being owned (child labor, slavery physical or sexual, etc.), to wanting work and having none. Not that these are cleanly differentiated categories—they are only aspects of a rough tool for becoming aware of how a piece of writing orients the reader (that is, how the writer of that piece orients the reader and takes his or her own stance) toward the everyday and nearly universal experience of working in terms of the working person’s emotional connection to fellow workers, the workplace, and the work itself, whether it’s making sandwiches, dealing drugs, or designing highways.
Of course we have returned several times to the portrayal of class in our readings. Often in what we read and write this is only an implied idea; some writers take it for granted and even consider it an unneeded or merely distracting idea. Sometimes it becomes an utterly necessary background of relationships, choices, events. And sometimes it is at the very heart of the matter. In Edwin Muir’s Autobiography (we read the chapter “Glasgow” and part of the following one, “Fairport,” on his job in the bone factory) the jarring stratification of society that young Muir and his family confront, after they are forced to begin an impoverished urban existence, throws into relief many aspects of their emotional lives that had not been highlighted in their earlier, rural years on a remote island, where their poverty had also been, for Muir as a child, idyllic. Unlike say, Carolyn Chute, Muir is not writing primarily about class difference; it is simply an inescapable structure of his existence, until he finds his way through it and leaps to another class.
And there’s identity itself—to what extent is it portrayed as something inherent, psychological (which is mostly the mainstream American way), perhaps distorted by family dysfunction, and to what extent is it shown to develop through the experience and necessities of work? Against this individual sense of identity, we have also asked to what extent identity might be formed by one’s shared relation to the experience of work.
Inevitably the idea of the self as a variety of performances has come into our discussion— at work, on the weekend, inside the family, on vacation, in school…. The office-life person is not the same as the weekend person. And in any case, we know that what might be called a kind of persuasive inconsistency rather than the opposite (opposites: unpersuasive inconsistency or unpersuasive consistency) may be the mark of a person (real or imagined) well-portrayed, or of a strong individual voice in a lyric poem.
(Next: Ellison and the full reading list.)